Best Video Game Moments is a series about memorable moments and mechanics in video games.
White phosphorus …For Spec Ops: The Line
I had the misfortune of playing Spec Ops II: Omega Squad when it released on Dreamcast, and I still consider it one of the worst video games I’ve ever purchased. Years later when this series reboot was getting rave reviews, I was understandably hesitant, like many people likely were when approaching what looked like another Call of Duty clone.
Spec Ops: The Line is actually a short and mechanically basic shooter, but its campaign story was elevated by its writer, Walt Williams, who crafted an intriguing character-driven rumination on the horrors of war.Spoiler incoming!
Nowhere is that more evident than in the eighth chapter of the campaign where the protagonist (Walker) bombs the enemy position using mortar shells loaded with white phosphorus. A devastating scene follows where dozens of innocent people are inadvertently scorched to death by the lethal substance, leaving Walker and his squad solemnly advancing through the dying bodies as they lay screaming in pain. Millions of video games are violent, but the minimal distancing between the fantasy and reality here is intentionally uncomfortable.
There is no morale choice at work either, the player keeps pressing that launch button lest they themselves die in an unwinnable firefight, and the ethical implications of this non-choice feel even more poignant during the aftermath where your squad laments what they’ve done. It’s no surprise that Walker’s sanity begins slipping from then on, as the plot spirals into something resembling a horror movie instead of a jingoistic shooting gallery.
Like or not, Spec Ops: The Line aimed higher than mere escapist entertainment, leaving the white phosphorus scene scorched into our memories; a moment as memorable as it is controversial.
Guardian Ape rises again …For Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
A favourite of Twitch streamers everywhere, the Guardian Ape is an exciting and well-balanced boss fight found in Sekiro’s deadly Sunken Valley location. The animation on this grotesque primate is top notch, and the music backing its brutal rock-flinging assault is likewise sublime.Spoiler incoming!
But what really sets this boss apart is what happens after it’s killed, whereupon the Ape suddenly resurrects as an undead horror to attack the player in a surprise second phase. It’s a proper “holy shit” moment that breaks UI conventions in the name of one immensely effective jump scare.
Water everywhere …For Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance
Mentioning ‘water physics’ as a standout moment in a video game only serves to highlight how gorgeous Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance was at the time it was released, to the point where splashing in puddles became a real compulsion!
Named after its creators at Snowblind Studios, the Snowblind Engine which created these pristine visuals was used to make several more console RPGs during the early two-thousands. Even so, I don’t think any of those follow-ups reached the same graphical highs of this sterling first effort.
Baal Zebul’s Fertile Rondo …For Bayonetta 3
The disappointing Bayonetta 3 doesn’t have as many resonant moments for me, but this boss fight turned impromptu rhythm game featuring a demonic diva singing her enemies to death, has marvellous music that is worth shouting about.
Listen to both the English and Japanese versions to get the complete experience.
Who Turned Out The Lights? …For Earthworm Jim
This secret level from Earthworm Jim sees our hapless invertebrate hero platforming in near total darkness!
Perhaps true to form for this 16-bit classic, the level is a nightmare to actually play, but the eventual payoff that sees (in a sense) Jim fleeing a monstrous set of cartoon eyeballs is a fun little moment.